THERE was something unbelievably cool about Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. It wasn’t merely that a country on the Southern tip of Africa, which had spent the past forty years in the racial stone-age, had made a giant leap forward into non-racial democracy, or that after decades of war and civil conflict, citizens black and white, were prepared to set aside their differences in rebuilding a nation.
It was the vision and promise of a world in which race no longer defined us, in which human rights exceptionalism and a “We the People” constitution marked us all, as somehow morally superior. Citizens with something to write home about, compared to those poor devils living in countries where similar conflicts had ended up in turmoil and worse, a racial conflagration. Not only did we put an end to the death penalty, but we buried our nuclear weapons programme, embraced gay rights, women’s rights, environmental rights and embarked on a course of national reconciliation.
There is something unique to the story of the birth of modern South Africa. In 1994, the very same year that we voted for our first black President, the Rwandan Genocide occurred, resulting in nearly 1 million deaths. In another part of the world, Jordan and Israel, found time to put aside their differences and declared peace. Peace looked as if it could catch-on around the globe, as a cri de coeur, (a cry from the heart), and for many it was Nelson Mandela in a Springbok jersey which symbolised such hopes and dreams.
Now some 22 years later, the country has never been so polarised as before. The sight of burning campuses, the latest round in which paintings have been torched — by protesters at UCT waving the banner of decolonisation — has brought home just how fragile this simple dream appears. In the face of ongoing inequality, racism, poverty and global economic turmoil will the country once again stumble into civil war? Will political leaders take us forward into a new era, via the path of peace, or will we repeat the tragedy, of yet another cycle of violence, or worse, an institutional lustration and blood-letting that has tacit support from those in power?
Clearly the current administration under Jacob Zuma is out of touch with events in the country. In such times a direct address to the nation would be in keeping with the gravity of the situation. Instead we have seen the disruption of the President’s annual SONA address, as the executive takes responsibility for misappropriation of public funds, and Zuma hides behind the trappings of office.
It needs to be said, that while there may be a black majority government, the same government has shown itself to be beleaguered, under siege from its own electorate. A change in leadership, a new President, could bring hope and renewal, but for so long as we have a lame duck in Zuma, the nation appears leaderless, its policies increasingly dictated by opposition groups, and an opposition which equally appears unable to form a government without a split in the majority ruling party.
Only time can tell if South Africa’s electoral system prevails, in forming a new government empowered and capable of dealing with the crisis, while continuing the legacy of the nation’s founder, Nelson Mandela.